Monday, January 30, 2012

The Screenplay's the Thing
"The play's the thing."  So said Will Shakespeare through his character, Prince Hamlet.  That line has been cited countless times by writers, philosophers, social media pundits – even scientists and economists.  The context varies, of course, depending on the purpose and perspective of the user.  I recently conceived of a new – for me – context and use for the line, i.e., to highlight the ultimate purpose of fiction writing, and by inference, the role of the writer with respect to the reader.
The novelist's goal, as well as the short story writer's and poet's goal, is to use words to transfix and transport a reader's mind to a scene, to action, to dialogue.  More importantly, the goal is also to keep the reader's mind in place – bonded to the scene – and pursue the journey that the writer has laid out.
I recently reread a short story, Proof of the Pudding, by William Sydney Porter, also known as O. Henry.  A Mr. Westbrook, editor of Minerva Magazine, chances upon one Shackleford Dawe, a once successful but now failing writer for Westbrook's magazine, among others.  We learn that Westbrook's main objection to Dawe's writing lies in the author's use of common, ordinary dialogue in response to a dramatic event.  Dawe argues that his writing is consistent with human behavior whereas Westbrook argues for more dramatic responses, reminding me of Shakespeare's works.  Dawe responds to Westbrook's argument, claiming, "Not in a six hundred night's run anywhere but on the stage." Interestingly, they both seem to view a work of fiction like a script for a play. 
To be expected of O. Henry, Westbrook and Dawe, discovering in the same letter that their wives left them to pursue better lives, respond in manners exactly contrary to their staunchly held positions.  My intent is not to argue for either position.  Rather, the story pointed out to me that a novel or short story can be much like a screenplay, wherein the writer can evoke, in the reader, all the senses employed in film through skillful – and practiced – word choice.  A film or a novel can embody captivating action or poignant stillness, vivid sound or momentous silence, and the illusions of hideous or appetizing tastes, tactile sensations of luxurious suede or asphalt, and the strength of a pleasant perfume or revolting stench.
For me, what is new, if not news, is the concept of a novel played out on a soundstage inside the reader's mind.  By viewing a novel  as a movie, the writer, similar to a film's screenwriter, producer, and director, can bind the reader's mind to the moment, like the effect of a good movie on a viewer.  Choosing a film as a writer's perspective instead of a stage play has the advantages of grander special effects, and breadth of scenery selection and dialogue, relative to a play.  In any event, like Westbrook and Dawe intimate, the screenplay's the thing, in the form of a novel, that will hopefully fill a reader's mind with the story that is in the writer's mind.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Dollar Bill

Sometime in September of 1962, my high school English Composition teacher assigned us the task of writing an essay describing an unusual occurrence in our life during the previous summer or spring.  His purpose was no doubt to assess our writing abilities which would indicate the amount of work he was facing during the school year.
Barely old enough to legally drive and living in a relatively quiet area of the country, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and a relatively quiet area of the century, I could think of nothing unusual or essay-worthy about which to write.  I was a farm boy whose summers were filled with unexciting work, e.g. hoeing, pulling weeds, feeding chickens and cultivating seemingly endless fields of beans and corn.  As any farmer will attest, the results of farming can be anything but dull, given the weather and the economy; however, the work toward that end is exceedingly dull.  Leisure time was filled with easily predictable pursuits, e.g. fishing and swimming in local ponds and horseback riding.
And so, I faced the daunting challenge of recognizing an event in my recent life that warranted treatment in an essay.  I could think of only one pathetically feeble event.  During the summer, while feeding the chickens, I found a dollar bill amidst the litter in the chicken house.  It was a crumpled bill covered in chicken manure and pine shavings, totally unusable in its found state.  In the essay, I described my wonder at finding the bill, the value of which at that time was not insignificant, and the process I went through to clean it and render it useful.  Visions of spending it on three gallons of gas or five cheeseburgers the next time that I was allowed to drive to town made the effort seem worthwhile.
Although my essay was not exactly a description of an earth-shattering or dramatic, life-altering event, I was horrified when Mr. Bloodsworth chose my essay to read to the class the next day.  He did not divulge the author’s name but, as he stood at the front of the classroom, reading the essay, I began to feel like the main character in a Stephen King short story, years before I heard of the author.  I cringed as I heard the expected snickers and whispers of my classmates who were, for the most part, city-dwellers, sixteen-year-olds who didn’t know a chicken house from a chicken coop or the value of a dollar.  I recall hoping that a fire drill would interrupt the class and terminate my misery.  No such luck!
When he finished reading the essay aloud, still without divulging the author’s name, Mr. Bloodsworth looked around the class, and without his gaze landing on anyone specific, advised the author to pursue writing because the piece showed promising talent.  In spite of the expected condescending reactions of my classmates, I took some enigmatic pride in his advice although, at the time, I was unable to comprehend its significance.
That is one of the events that, remembered decades later, imparted a measure of confidence in me to accept the challenge to write a novel.  And strangely, after starting, I somehow imagined the kernels of several more novels, not to mention several short stories. 

Does anyone else remember similar - or different - experiences in their young life that imparted the drive or confidence to write fiction?

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Novice Novelist
Within the realm of fiction writing, I readily admit to being a neophyte by any standard.  As a contributing columnist addressing real estate topics at a local newspaper, my writing was journalistic and factual.  Years later, in college at the age of sixty-three – yes, sixty-three – my essays and theses for history, English and philosophy classes were interpretive and conceptual.  Although neither foray into writing directly addressed fiction-writing skills, positive responses in the latter experience fostered within me a desire to write a novel, the general storyline of which had been percolating in my mind for years.
In a fit of blind exuberance, I began writing the great American novel eighteen months ago.  Painfully aware of my limited expertise, I also began reading everything within my grasp about the craft, including magazines, books, online references, blogs, agent reviews, etc.  Naturally, I wanted to learn how to seize my readers’ interest on the first page and kidnap their minds until the very last page.  Of course, I also wanted to recognize the potholes and detours on the road to publication.  In all that research, I never encountered an article written by a relative newcomer to the art.
In the name of all that is rational, why would anyone listen to the views of a novice, an amateur, a beginner in any field?  Because NASA listens to high school students who suggest viable and valuable experiments in space.  Because rare is the parent who, when asked a seemingly simple question by their young child, didn’t pause to question their own conclusions about life or their philosophical view of reality.  Because most home builders, auto mechanics and other trades encounter a new hire who suggests a better, faster, or less expensive technique.  Because to ignore meaningful input from a fresh, even amateur, perspective can mean neglecting that glint of insight that we were unaware was missing.
Therein lies the reason I started this blog – to document my journey from novice fiction writer to – well...hopefully – publication.  During subsequent drafts of my first novel, I noticed repeating patterns of beginners' blunders, and during a review by a professional editor friend, I was forthrightly, albeit diplomatically, apprised of others.  I intend to highlight pitfalls, potholes, and detours that I have encountered -- and will encounter -- along the way.  Maybe it will help other beginning writers.